Handicapped from the Start

A few years ago, I taught a critical thinking course at a summer school in London for international high school students. The students were between 15 and 17 and came from very wealthy families around the world. They were sent to London to learn debating and critical thinking skills and to visit UK universities, with the hope of being accepted to Oxford or Cambridge after high school.

One of the activities we did was a large scale global trade simulation: students were split into groups and were told that they needed to trade with each other and the “stock exchange” (the teachers) to get gold stars. The group with the most gold stars at the end would be the winner. The teachers traded paper circles for 5 gold stars, squares of paper for 1 gold star and so on.

What the students realised as the game went on was that some started with resources (paper, scissors, drawing tools). Those with resources quickly began making perfect circles and were delighted when the stock exchange accepted them in exchange for gold stars. After some time, they traded gold stars in exchange for paper from teams who had stockpiles of paper in order to continue production. Teams without scissors struggled to make circles that would be accepted by the stock exchange and the paper baron teams quickly upped the number of gold stars they would accept per piece of paper. Teams with lots of people but few resources slowly made squares by folding paper and carefully tearing it. The teachers changed the prices for exchange without explanation.

Tensions rose quickly. Those who were doing well had no time for listening to other students about how it was unfair. They refused to donate paper to teams who had nothing to trade. Some students were frustrated when we (the teachers) would not answer questions about the discrepancies or rules of the game. Particularly for these assertive, entitled young people who had enjoyed many advantages in life, it was an unwelcome experience to be disadvantaged and powerless.

Eventually the game came to an end and we took the students through a reflection and discussed what lessons they learned. During the game, fortunes had changed quickly and, in the moment, ruthless competition drove behaviour.

Students who began with resources knew they had had an advantage but they quickly moved to feeling entitled to their good fortune — they had worked hard to make circles and maximise their position by trading strategically.

Those without resources felt frustrated but had been creative in their endeavours to get into the game. I was struck by the intensity of their emotions during the debrief.

We often frame inequality as a deficit on the part of those less fortunate. It can be a useful exercise to flip that — to consider what protective factors, what advantages, what metaphorical (as well as tangible) resources the fortunate started with. If groups, citizens, or countries are starting with an unequal distribution of resources but are expected to participate in a game with the same rules, those with existing resources have an unfair advantage.

While these inequalities are obvious in the classroom setting, they also play out in many parts of our daily lives that we are probably less willing to acknowledge. When the “starting point” is so different for each of us, are we further perpetuating inequalities by insisting we must all conform and be judged by the same standards or rules? Asking kids to sit still in class and concentrate, where one was put to sleep with a full tummy after a bedtime story and another is coming to school from a damp house without breakfast, is surely a much greater challenge for the second child. Understanding why some people commit crimes is perhaps more challenging. Personal choice and individual responsibility are part of the picture but where person A has 10 options to choose from and person B has 3 (where one includes committing an offence), the individual’s actions need to be seen as part of the collective where society has created such a discrepancy in options.

Striving for action to reduce inequality is a great aim. But the first step is acknowledging the many and complex inequalities that exist as well as the reasons for their existence. One way of doing this is to experience the lives of others, particularly given that learning through experience is incredibly valuable. While some forms of experiential learning such as “voluntourism” have been discredited as exploitative, it is important for us to create opportunities to walk a little way in each other’s shoes. It is only once we are able to be honest with ourselves about these different starting points that we can begin to dismantle some of the systems that perpetuate intergenerational inequality in our society.

Tui Motu magazine. Issue 232 November 2018: 27